The title of this film may make you think of photographs, which in the end is all that the characters, who once loved each other, have left. And its end is in its beginning: director François Ozon, he of the particularly unshy approach to modern sexuality, shuffles the pictures in reverse chronological order so that we begin with the divorce of Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) and Gilles (Stéphane Freiss). Why they have come to this point after eight years of slow failure and a son that will keep them together until they die will be revealed in the other four vignettes to follow. The monuments to their years – their divorce and parting shots, a dinner party where rather disturbing secrets are revealed, the birth of their child, their wedding night, and the gorgeous late afternoon beach on which they first meet – show us aspects of their personality that are unforgiving and mysterious, and never quite logical; which is, I may say, precisely the point of the exercise. It is the point because we are not dealing with cardboard cutouts. These are real people who not only do remarkably stupid and hurtful things but also come up with stupid excuses to justify themselves. Marion and Gilles have known each other for about ten years, years they cannot have back and of which they will remember less and less owing to their separation. If they had to file away times, forks in the path, when they chose wisely or (as is usually the case) unwisely, they might well select what we see of them.
And what do we see? Marion has a face that suitors might deem classically beautiful, although it is neither one of those epithets. But throughout it is morose, because early on in the relationship (late in the film) it is clear that Marion is not and perhaps cannot be content with her life. The only time she is radiant and glowing sincerely is that first time as the film winds down, on a beach in a sunset that every person secretly wants as the backdrop to the story to end all stories, with a man who is handsome and apparently as interested in her as she is in that sunset. The idealism of Marion, and her sobering encounter with the difficulties of making a relationship survive, reflect the downward spiral that seems inevitable because we know the end. And because we know Gilles.
Gilles is not what he appears to be. Rather, he is not what Marion claims he is to herself, in her heart of hearts, and in that beach she holds dear in her memory. Gilles has no particular interests other than business and pleasure, usually in that order, and could never be a shining knight or brave family man despite his efforts at both roles. When he has his gay brother over for dinner in the second vignette, he speaks freely of a night of lovemaking that did not involve his wife. Marion’s face in this scene is one of the film’s strongest images, one of mounting disgust as if she were vomiting with every feature of that classically beautiful face but her mouth. That his brother is being used by a much younger man who has learned the bimbo trick of making older, less secure men trade the indulgence of your every whim for occasional affection reflects the cruelty of the world around the couple who has made it this far. And because it is Gilles who is raping Marion in the first vignette, boasting of an orgy in the second then mysteriously absenting himself from the birth of their baby in the third, we can only conclude that Gilles is at fault and Marion is a victim. But this legerdemain is just part and parcel of the structure, since the fourth vignette shows something about Marion that we might have suspected all along.
As mentioned elsewhere on these pages, the arguments against films with such gimmicks, to use an unkind term, is that were they to be straightened out like some stuffed viper they wouldn’t be particularly interesting. They also, I should add, wouldn’t be those films. 5 x 2 thrives from your knowledge of what happened next but not why. The situation, sufficiently banal, is given real pathos because we all know it will end badly and even suspect, aware of Ozon’s love of the macabre, that something truly horrific may have rendered the couple asunder. Well, however revolting you find their behavior will depend on your tolerance for emotional cruelty. I will say that female viewers may take a particular dislike to what Gilles does and doesn’t do, and what he chooses to say at some magnificently inopportune times. This may reflect his inability to communicate with women or, perhaps, Ozon’s own fundamental lack of interest in elucidating those fragments and details that separate the prejudices that women have to endure daily from the coddling that men typically receive. Without slipping into the symbolism of these basic beacons of man and woman, love and sex, and forgiveness and atonement, it is no surprise that some reviewers have likened Marion's sin to Eve's. And that is the woefully sad part of this tragedy, this crude symbol for our own decay and nostalgia: Gilles is never given a chance to explain why he acted the way he did, and he is damned for it. What if we had begun with the end and seen Marion happy and then very quickly disenchanted, would we think differently of Gilles? Ah, but that would be a different film.